The Decline of Trust in the United States

A Look at the Trend and What Can Be Done About It

Josh Morgan
May 20, 2014 · 13 min read

Trust is the glue that binds people together. It is a rare concept in the social and behavioral sciences in that the evidence for its benefits is overwhelming. Trust is correlated with increased civic participation, decreased corruption, increased resilience to disasters, decreased economic inequality, and decreases in illegal activities. It is also correlated with increased health, happiness, and intelligence. Practically all researchers studying trust have concluded that it improves the human experience.

Although trust is presumably a good thing, no one is exactly sure where it comes from. There are, of course, many theories. The most common theory links it to frequencies of social interaction. The more often we choose to engage with people, the more likely we are to cooperate with and have faith in them, or so the theory says.

By that logic, forces that limit these connections would limit people in their willingness to seek them out. Since everyone, both as individuals and as groups, deals with unique circumstances in life, it stands to reason that everyone has unique impressions of trust and trustworthiness. Therein lies the mystery, and is the premise for several books and hundreds of articles on the subject.

In the United States, feelings of trust have varied historically between groups, though trends among the general population have been observed. Data from the DDB Life Style Survey indicates that trust began to increase throughout the country after World War II, and rose steadily through the 1960s. According to the data, trust peaked in 1967–1968, when roughly 56% of survey respondents agreed that “most people can be trusted.” From there, trust began to decline, and the trend has continued ever since.

Today, trust in the United States is at its lowest point in decades.

The decline in trust occasionally receives coverage in the media, with recent reports occurring in late 2013 and early 2014. A poll published by the Associated Press and GfK found that only 1 in 3 three Americans would agree that “most people can be trusted.” The same poll found that less than 1 in 3 would trust clerks with their credit cards, or other drivers on the road, or strangers they might meet while traveling. In the context of political trust, Pew found that less than 1 in 5 adults trusted the government in Washington. In the workplace, the American Psychological Association found that roughly 1 in 4 adults did not trust their employers.

Coverage of the decline sometimes targets specific groups. As of late, Millenials have been a hot topic. The Pew Research Center recently found that less than 1 in 5 adults between 18 and 29 years old believed that most people could be trusted, which is lower than the general population. Harvard’s Institute of Politics also found that political trust was low among Millenials. Less than 1 in 4 of them told interviewers that they would “definitely vote” in the 2014 elections, leading one researcher to claim that “cynicism toward the political process has never been higher.”

It is fair to assume that many factors have been involved in the decline of trust among Americans.

The General Social Survey (GSS), which has collected data on Americans and their characteristics since 1972, contains information on trust and related factors. Using the 2012 edition of the GSS data set, I was able to compare how groups in different categories responded to the variable trust, which asks, “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?” This was the variable used by Pew and the AP-GfK to determine trust among the general public and among Millenials.

I analyzed the responses to trust across eleven characteristics between 1972 and 2012. Those characteristics were age, birth cohort, education, gender, geographic region, happiness, health, marital status, race, and opinions about finances and income. I then created charts (as collected here) to illustrate the percentages of respondents from each group that said “most people can be trusted.” To view my methodology, click here.

As shown in the chart for general responses to trust, the percentage of all respondents who said that most people can be trusted dropped from about 46% in 1972 to about 32% in 2012. For the sake of comparison, I included the “Can be trusted” line to the other charts as a dotted line.

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Gender was the factor with the weakest correlation to trust. Males were more likely to trust most people than females, but only slightly. In another study of trust with similar results, Karen K. Clark and associates explained the difference as a possible effect of gender discrimination. I should emphasize that, as the gender chart shows below, the correlation between gender and trust was significant but almost negligible. I only included it because gender is a common factor in social analysis, and I knew some readers would be curious.

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Residents of the South, defined here as the region from Texas to the South-Atlantic coast, were less likely to trust people than residents of other regions. Bless their hearts! Results for the Northeast, Midwest, and West were all higher but mixed (see here), and were combined in the regional chart below. The lack of trust among Southerners was probably related to the presence of other factors from this analysis, especially race.

I have also animated data for more specific regions below. To view the frames as an album, click here.

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Marital status had a weak correlation with trust. Married respondents were more likely to trust most people than those who were not married. Trust among those who were divorced or separated, widowed, or never married was also mixed (see here), though never-marrieds began to trust people less than other respondents in the 2000s.

Explaining marital status and trust is complicated, in part because social norms toward marriage have changed since the 1970s. For example, Pew recently found that fewer Americans were getting married. Further, researchers at the Urban Institute projected that fewer Millenials would marry before age 40 than members of previous generations. Those norms and others were possibly in play here.

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Speaking of the under-40 crowd, aging had a positive correlation with trust. Trends for age divisions beyond younger (18 to 39) and older (40 and above) were scattered (see here), but reducing ages to two groups allowed for a more distinct chart.

Over the last four decades, the youngest Americans were among the least trusting.

Studies have shown across time and place that trust generally increases with age, so its decline among young Americans has inspired confusion for researchers. Robert Putnam attributed it to the influences of television, the Internet, and other, socially isolating inventions, though not everyone has agreed with him. Dietland Stolle and Laura Nishikawa found that the media has influenced some parents to instill distrust in their children, despite how the parents themselves may have felt about trust. As with the other factors in this analysis, it is safe to assume that many influences converged on this relationship.

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Birth cohorts are often studied in works on social capital, a concept that refers to shared social resources like norms, networks, and trust. Putnam popularized the theory that cultural differences between birth cohorts, e.g. the Silents and the Baby Boomers, were responsible for a decline in social capital in the United States and therefore a decline of trust. Putnam’s theory has since been expanded, and challenged, by others.

The correlation between birth cohorts and trust coincided with the findings about Millenials that I mentioned earlier. The cohort chart below shows a consistent gap in trust between generations, with later cohorts trusting less than earlier ones. More specifically, an average of 19% of Millenials reported that they trusted most people. For contemporary theories that might be associated with this effect, Google the phrase “why are millenials”.

Baby Boomers and Generation X were the only groups in this analysis to show upward trendlines for trust.

I lived through the 1980s and 1990s, and I remember when Gen-Xers faced many of the same criticisms that have been heaped upon the twenty-somethings of the 2010s. Perhaps Millenials, too, will achieve an upward trend in trust as they age, but that remains to be seen. The fact remains that, despite their upward swing, only 1 in 4 Gen Xers on average have said that most people can be trusted.

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Condition of health was correlated with trust, but the two concepts were difficult to detangle. Every article I found in a search modeled trust (or social capital) as a predictor of health. In other words, increased trust (or social capital) had a direct positive effect on subjects and their health conditions. I would argue that, given the health chart below, the inverse of that relationship should also be considered.

On average, respondents in excellent health were 19% more likely to trust people over the 40-year period than those in fair or poor health. Latent factors were certainly involved here, as being healthy in itself would not cause a person to be more trusting.

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Unsurprisingly, happiness was correlated with trust. The two concepts were tough to pull apart, as either one could have preceded the other. Three Italian researchers found that, among other factors, a decrease in social connections among Americans over time was correlated with a decrease in their happiness. Regardless of what the causal direction may be, the happiness chart below shows that respondents who were “very happy” or “pretty happy” were more trusting than those who were “not too happy” (and yes, the wording of those options was carefully chosen).

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I wanted to analyze the trends in trust among socio-economic classes. Unfortunately, the GSS’s data on class is a mess. Social desirability bias has tainted the survey’s major variable on class, leading hundreds of respondents to misidentify as “working class” or “middle class”. Inflation has also depreciated the survey’s data on incomes, and attempts to create new, adjusted variables for income have complicated even simple distinctions of class by earnings.

Instead of class, I decided to use two variables based on opinions about finances and incomes. One asks, “[W]ould you say that you are pretty well satisfied with your present financial situation, more or less satisfied, or not satisfied at all?” The other asks, “Compared with American families in general, would you say your family income is far below average, below average, average, above average, or far above average?” These are, at best, acceptable substitutes for measures of class, but they did lead to interesting findings.

People who were satisfied or “more or less satisfied” with their finances agreed that most people could be trusted more often than those who were not satisfied. Similarly, those who felt their families earned above average or average were more trusting than those who felt their families earned below the average.

Americans with “above average” family incomes were the second most likely group to trust in this analysis, with an average of 53% agreeing that most people could be trusted.

The charts on finances and incomes below raise economic issues, including income inequality. Eric Uslaner has written at length about the effect of income inequality on trust. He found that people were less inclined to trust one another where incomes were perceived to be more unequal. That effect could have been involved here, given that economic inequality has increased in the United States since the 1970s.

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Education created drastic differences between respondents. On average, Americans with college degrees were 32% more likely to say most people could be trusted than those without high school diplomas. Note that “any college degree” includes junior college degrees, four-year undergraduate degrees, and graduate degrees.

Americans with college degrees shared the highest percentage for trust on average, with 55% saying most people could be trusted.

The relationship between education and trust has been hard to reduce. Studies consistently find that education has a positive effect on trust, but no one is sure of why. Research indicates that education sets off a domino effect of other factors that influence trust, including improved social skills, improved occupational opportunities, and improved economic outcomes, though experts do not always notice the same effects.

The education chart below, ranked by highest degree completed, displays the results.

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Finally, race was the most highly correlated characteristic with trust in this analysis. Whites were 25% more likely to say that most people could be trusted than non-whites. Separating non-whites into “Black” and “Other” revealed a striking statistic (see here).

Blacks were the least trusting group in this analysis. On average, only 15% said that most people could be trusted.

There are numerous explanations for the disparities of trust between whites, blacks, and other races in the United States. All of them incorporate concepts like discrimination and inequality, as well as events from the history of race relations among Americans. That said, I will defer the discussion on race and trust to scholarly texts.

In most years that the GSS has been collected, few respondents have identified as belonging to other races besides black or white and answered the question for trust. For instance, only four respondents who identified as “Other” for race in 1972 answered trust, when the desired sample size for all groups per year was 100 or more. Because of this limitation, I collapsed “Black” and “Other” into “Non-white” to create a more reliable value.

The race chart below shows the comparison between whites and non-whites. Note that this chart does not consider ethnic affiliations, which would include Hispanics and Latinos.

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This analysis had three limitations. First, survey research is an imperfect method of measurement, and can only be used to make inferences about human behavior. (On that note, two researchers have objected to the wording of the variable trust.) Second, the results were not meant to imply causal effects, especially absolute ones. For example, getting married or turning 40 would not cause a person’s trust to increase. Third, the Pearson’s correlation scores for these factors, which measured their covariance with trust on a scale of 0 to 1, ranged from .103 to .205 (excluding gender, which scored a scant .040). This range suggests significant but weak correlations, even by the relaxed standards of social science. The reasons for these weak correlations varied, as latent factors influenced the results of each category. Despite these limitations, the fact that the decline of trust varied between groups remains clear.

Photo: Stefan Georgi, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0,

So far, we have learned that the decline of trust has not been equal among all Americans. The causes for the decline are not definite, yet we can assume three things. First, most Americans now approach “most people” with standoffishness. Second, this approach has affected how Americans interact and cooperate with one another, as well as their willingness to interact and cooperate at all. Third, practically all of these effects can be characterized as negative.

Assuming that the decline of trust among Americans is a problem, what can be done to solve it?

Americans did not learn to distrust “most people” suddenly. The trend is a product of events that have accumulated over decades. Any reversal of the decline in trust would need at least a generation’s worth of time to make lasting gains, probably more for some people. Just as a lack of trust did not take root in the United States overnight, it cannot be uprooted overnight.

That leads to the bad news. As the analysis above implies, there is no single solution that would restore trust among all Americans. Although some factors may have been more prominent than others in the loss of trust, the problem is too diverse for one piece of legislation or one grassroots campaign to confront. There is no magic fix.

The good news is that individuals can build trust in their own lives and in the lives of those around them, including their families and their communities. This requires accepting responsibility for and doing trustworthy deeds, even if it seems like “most people” would not do the same. Trustworthiness requires leadership through action, and cannot be left for a proverbial someone-else to do.

Americans need positive events and role models to jump-start restorations of trust.

This analysis has revealed a deep decline in trust that has affected all Americans differently. Although there is no one solution that will recover trust completely, there is still hope for progress among the willing. The most realistic approach to building trust is to be trustworthy, and to make conscious efforts to help others where possible. If nothing else, this approach could allow some readers to feel more empowered at the local level, and to reduce feelings of misanthropy. Setting an example of trustworthiness would likely inspire trust in passersby, and that is the best method available to most of us for making a difference.

For ways to spread trust and trustworthiness, visit this list of ideas for acts of kindness, and remember to focus on the things that you can change instead of those you can’t.

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